“Inside Out” by Tim Torres, UCSA Board of Trustees Treasurer, Prayer Chaplain
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” 1 Corinthians 10:13.
Desire is our basic drive. It is essential to revealing the unfolding creation. It is also deceptive. We are tempted by our own desire, lured and enticed by it to create imperfectly. And this is important: I’m not just talking about the kind of desire that we might first think of when we think of “temptation.” I’m not just talking about our various immoral appetites – sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. I’m really talking about all of our wants. You’re not free of this just because you don’t drink, smoke, or go to strip clubs.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” Genesis 3:4-5 The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Genesis 3:13.
We continue eating what the serpent of desire is feeding us.
We think that if our wants are satisfied, we will be happy. But instead, when we have what we want, we just want something more, or something different, “need it” to be happy. The hedonic treadmill hypothesis says that we humans tend to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite changes in fortune or the achievement of major goals. When something that was previously atypical or unfamiliar becomes standard, usual or expected, we call that the new normal. If we make more money, expectations and desires rise, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
But it’s even more insidious than that. In creating the circumstances to satisfy our wants, we also create circumstances we want to avoid. When we create a home that feels safe and secure, we create an outside that is full of fear. Our castles become our prisons. When we indulge in pleasure, we set the stage for suffering. When we acquire praise or fame, we live in fear of ridicule and disgrace. When we acquire things we want, we must labor to keep them or suffer their loss. The better we become at controlling our lives, the more we discover that we are at the mercy of chance. In protecting ourselves from our fear of death, we kill the present moment. In deciding one thing is good, we decide another is bad.
Jesus was talking about setting aside desire when he said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26.
The pursuit of happiness is a paradox. We think we know what will make us happy. But the serpent of desire is deceptive and our awareness of “good and evil” is not the ultimate truth. The pursuit of happiness is a paradox because the way to real happiness is to not pursue the things we think will make us happy.
Lasting or abiding happiness doesn’t mean that we feel only happy all of the time. We are deceived into equating happiness with feeling pleasure and avoiding pain (the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Because we confuse happiness with feeling good, our pursuit of happiness becomes, instead, a continuous “self-medication.” When we have feelings that aren’t pleasant, we do something to avoid them, instead of just letting them be.
In the movie Inside Out (a great movie, in case you haven’t seen it) we learn that happiness includes other feelings, including sadness; sadness is actually vital to our happiness in facing the complexities of life. We need to feel our feelings, not avoid or repress them. At the same time, we must learn that we are not our feelings. A key step to attaining abiding happiness is learning to open to our feelings without being caught up and controlled by them.
So what do I suggest to attain abiding happiness? Spiritual practice, which comes in many forms: meditation/practicing the presence, unceasing prayer, sacred service, generosity. Notice I didn’t include reading and study, which can support and feed our spiritual practices but are not themselves spiritual practices. Reading the latest spiritual book can become just another form of self-medication, chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Spiritual practices are tried and tested means of attaining abiding happiness.
Spiritual practices are powerful ways to get to know ourselves and our feelings. Knowing ourselves is essential because even practices are subject to the deception of desire – they are prompted BY desire, but futile if done IN desire. We can practice for its own sake or we can practice as a form of self-medication. You are the only one who can even begin to know which of these is happening in you. And you make that possible when you spend time with yourself and your God. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Practice.
“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…”– Thoreau
“Seek first his kingdom … “ Matthew 6:33